One of the world’s top ecclesiologists analyzes an unprecedented Church governance report
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and the Catholic Religious of Australia (CRA) instituted the Implementation Advisory Group to respond to the Royal Commission Report.
That group, in turn, created the Governance Review Project Team (GRPT). This team was tasked with crafting, “in light of Catholic ecclesiology,” a comprehensive response to the Royal Commission’s critique of church governance.
After a year of study and reflection, that team delivered to the ACBC a potentially ground-breaking document, “The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia.”
The Australian bishops have decided to delay the release of this document for six months while they engage its recommendations themselves.
However, La Croix International was able to obtain a copy. I have already provided a summary in a previous article, looking at the points that have a value for the wider Church beyond Australia.
Here, in this essay, is my analysis of “The Light from the Southern Cross”.
Admitting failure and daring to offer a way forward
It is perhaps surprising that we have given so much attention to what is ultimately nothing more than a committee report.
In different times, and in a healthier Church, such a report would have received little attention, largely because it would have been unnecessary to begin with. But today we have a Church wracked by scandal, yet led by a pope with a bold vision for ecclesial conversion.
In this time of ecclesial crisis, “The Light from the Southern Cross” report may offer a road map for key elements of what such a conversion would require.
This report holds considerable promise. It is grounded in sound ecclesiology. It offers a frank admission of the failings of Church governance at every level, and it dares to offer very specific recommendations for moving forward substantive ecclesial reform.
The drafting team included persons experienced in corporate and ecclesial governance – clergy, lay pastoral ministers, Church and school administrators, and leaders of Church reform groups. It also included several respected theologians and experts in canon law.
This breadth of perspective and range of expertise paid dividends in the overall quality of the text.
The path to decentralization and synodality
The document builds on important themes central to this pontificate. Indeed, it represents the most thoroughgoing consideration to date of what healthy Church governance ought to look like in the light of Pope Francis’ dream for a synodal Church.
Its frequent ecclesial application of the principle of subsidiarity is particularly significant since both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI had questioned whether it was appropriate to apply this principle – first articulated in Catholic social teaching –to matters of Church governance.
Yet Pope Francis’ repeated calls for the decentralization of Church authority suggest that he has fully embraced the principle.
The Argentinian pope has also insisted that synodality be enacted at every level of Church life. This document offers a raft of concrete reforms that would go a long way toward making that a reality.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the consequences for the pastoral life of the Church if the baptized members of a local Church were given genuine input into the appointment of bishops and the assignment of parish priests, as the report proposes.
How different would the pastoral life of a diocese look if diocesan pastoral councils reflected the diversity of the local Church and were regularly called upon for input before important pastoral decisions were made?
This would represent not only a check on unfettered episcopal power, it would move the Church well along the path toward becoming a genuine community of ecclesial discernment.
Sexism in the Catholic Church
Without ever using the term, the document recognizes the rampant sexism in the Catholic Church and emphasizes, time and again, the need for a much greater incorporation of women in Church governance, particularly at the higher levels of church decision-making.
It briefly mentions the Pan-Amazonian Synod’s request for the consideration of the ordination of women to the diaconate and speaks forcefully of the negative impact that has come from the exclusion of women from ordained ministry.
The drafters are to be applauded for a consistent call for the inclusion of women that refuses to rely on Pope Francis’ misguided appeals to some “feminine genius”. It is to the equal dignity of women and to their many gifts and abilities that the document appeals in rectifying this scandalous Church failing.
Some may be disappointed that the document does not push harder in certain areas.
Cautious and respectful of the law
One of the notable features of the text is its determination to stay within the parameters of Church doctrine and, with but a few exceptions, Church law.
Regarding the latter, the GRPT does propose an emendation to canon 391 that would require bishops to consult the diocesan pastoral council and the council of priests before making particular law.
A second proposal called for amending canon 513 to grant that diocesan pastoral councils would continue to function when a see is vacant.
There were also calls for changes to particular law, mandating, for example, the establishment of diocesan and parish pastoral councils in every Australian diocese and parish.
The document is clearly much the better for the contributions of not just the ecclesiologists appointed to the team, but also the experts in canon law. Presumably their contributions helped ensure the document would offer, at every turn, appropriately expansive readings of what Church law allowed and opportunities within current law that had been underutilized.
Probing the parameters of the laity exercising jurisdiction
One particular example stands out. The report consistently advocates for greater participation of the laity in Church governance. However, this advocacy has to contend with a school of canonical interpretation insisting that laypersons may not exercise the power of jurisdiction.
The report offers an unexpected excursus on this debate and ultimately sides with an opposing school of interpretation, finding sufficient warrant in the tradition for the lay exercise of jurisdiction. This interpretation would considerably expand the ecclesiastical offices to which a layperson could be appointed.
One can argue that this measured approach to doctrine and Church law has greatly enhanced the chances for its actual implementation. But there are limits to this approach as well.
The accountability of bishops
For example, the report simply accepts Church law’s claim that a bishop is only accountable to the pope. Unfortunately, current law in fact relies on a problematic equivocation at the Second Vatican Council.
While the report invokes conciliar teaching linking the ministry of the bishop to the local Church, in reality the council’s teaching was somewhat ambiguous on this point.
It is true that there are important texts in both Lumen gentium and Christus Dominus that emphasize the link between the bishop and the local Church. But there are also texts that seem to ground the ministry of the bishop much more in his membership in the episcopal college and his obedience to the head of that college, the pope.
It is the second view that has dominated post-conciliar Church law and custom. Yet those conciliar texts that stress the bishop’s relationship to the local Church find considerable support from the ancient tradition. In the early centuries of Christianity, bishops were elected by the local Church and prelates like St. Cyprian of Carthage insisted that bishops were accountable to their local flock.
The need to engage deeper ecclesiological problems with current law
At some point this ambiguity in Church teaching will have to be addressed if Church law and custom are to buttress the bishop’s relationship to the local Church.
Doing so would challenge the current practice of offering episcopal ordination as an honorific for those granted bureaucratic or diplomatic posts. It would also challenge the frequent transfer of bishops from Church to Church or, if you will permit me, from “See to shining See.”
This common practice encourages ecclesiastical careerism and, for that very reason, was prohibited in the early Church.
My point here is that a program for Church reform that is reluctant to engage deeper ecclesiological problems with current Church law will face certain limits regarding the scope of possible Church reform.
So, what is the larger import of this document? We will have to wait and see.
Translating the rhetoric of synodality into an institutional reality
Earlier in the year Pope Francis released his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia. That document can be justly scored for its failure to respond adequately to synodal pleas for a greater role for women and for the ordination of viri probati to the priesthood.
But those failings should not allow us to ignore an inspiring series of social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial “dreams,” and the conversions necessary to make those dreams a reality.
Francis has just promulgated a “motu proprio” that would clean up procedures for Vatican procurement of goods and services. It may sound arcane, but this represents a significant achievement in the long-awaited enactment of Vatican financial reforms.
And we are expecting soon the long-awaited apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium on more comprehensive curial reform. Analysis of an earlier draft suggests the constitution may actually have some reforming “teeth.”
For example, in that earlier draft there was a consistent emphasis on incorporating the laity in Church decision-making, particularly with respect to episcopal appointments.
Although some have raised quite legitimate concerns that the reformist energy of this pontificate may have dissipated, there may yet be substantive opportunities for lasting ecclesial reform. If so, “The Light from the Southern Cross” could make a considerable contribution by offering a blueprint for a much healthier exercise of governance.
However, for that to happen, this document cannot remain simply a committee report.
How will the ACBC and CRA respond to this document? One hopes that it will find its way into the deliberations of the forthcoming plenary council.
And were it to actually implement the bulk of these recommendations, the plenary council of the Church of Australia could mark the beginning of a genuine renewal of Catholicism on the Australian continent.
It might also contribute to translating Pope Francis’ soaring rhetoric about a synodal Church into an institutional reality.
Either way, the Australian bishops should be mindful: the global Church will be watching.
Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the current chair of the BC Theology Department. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Vatican II (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Reproduced with permission of La Croix.